22. Dr. E's grammar sequence

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22-1 Parts of Speech
(and common writing problems)






Module 1

1: Orientation  
2: Goals   

Module 2

  3: Euthyphro  
     4: The Library
 5: The Apology   
    6: Citation   
    7: Crito
    8: Phaedo  
    9: Exam Prep   
10: Plato Exam

Module 3

11: Research Project 
12: Research 101   
13: Books   
14: the Librarian   
15: the Web   
16: conferences  
17: Joy of Research 
18: Reasoning 

Module 4

19: Outlines 
20: Review the Plan:
21: Language 
22: Dr E's Grammar
23: Peer Review  
24: Hit Parade 

Module 5

25: About the Exam
26: Mock Final 
27: Exam Prep
28: Graduation 


1. Parts of Speech

The expression 'parts of speech' is a somewhat archaic term for 'word classes,' or the kinds a words a language can have. As early as the 4th century BC, Aristotle was talking about these word classes (meros tes lexeos); his term was translated by a Latin grammarian as pars orationis (a part or element of discourse); then, in the 1500's an English grammarian translated this Latin phrase into our now quaint expression "parts of speech" (McArthur 753).

According to traditional grammars, English is made up of eight parts of speech (listed below on this page). They are descendants of the original eight word classes described by Greek grammarians over two millennia ago. Of course, a few changes occurred through the millennia. For example, the adjective was invented by medieval grammarians about a thousand years ago; until then, adjectives had coexisted with adverbs in the same "superordinate" category of modifying words (McArthur 754). Adverbs remain the fuzziest of our categories today. Nonetheless, this class and the others have been with us for a long time. Grammar is a very old subject that has changed little in the course of history.

The traditional parts of speech appear to have some basis in the human brain. Neurologists theorize that various parts of speech are produced or processed in discrete parts of the brain. For example, nouns may be processed in a small area in the left temporal lobe, but verbs in the left frontal lobe. Research has shown that proper nouns (such as people's names and place names) are processed in an area separate from common nouns, so you may remember Joe by name only if two parts if your brain are communicating with each other. It's possible that you will remember him (what he looks like, what he does, where he lives, etc.) but forget his name. Stroke victims whose language skills are relatively unaffected can nevertheless lose the ability to recall people's names; in these cases, the neurological damage has occurred in the particular area that governs the use of proper nouns. Theoretically, with a different kind of brain dysfunction, you could know Joe's name but forget who he is.

From the lessons of neurology we are beginning to understand the science of grammar and style. They matter biologically. Grammatical speech and writing are easy on the neurons because the receiving brain finds all of the words exactly where they are expected to be. Ungrammatical expressions present challenges to the receiving brain, and the extra energy required to store the words where they belong is what we experience as confusion or difficulty in understanding.

the eight parts of speech

Here are the eight parts.

(1) noun: the name of a person (Joe, Mr. Ed, Saruman, Queen Amidala, girl, student, acrobat, bookworm);
a place (Dryden, Copper Harbor, Outer Mongolia, mountain, school), a thing (laptop, chocolate chip cookie, Pepsi), or an abstract quality (beauty, truth, virtue, sin).

The big writing problem with nouns is capitalization (Hacker section 22). The two noun types are common nouns (generic or nonspecific all the words above that are not capitalized) and proper nouns (names specific persons or places, capitalized in the examples above). This can get a little tricky: "sun" and "moon" and "earth" are not capitalized, but we capitalize "Mercury," Venus," Mars" and the other planets, the Milky Way and all constellation names. Proper nouns include historical events (the Civil War) and historical periods (the Dark Age), governmental bodies and agencies (the New York State Senate, the Internal Revenue Service), political parties (Republican Party or Republican party), clubs (Elks), societies (the French Academy) and companies (United States Steel Corporation), the days of the week (Saturday), months of the year (April), and holidays (Labor Day) but not seasons of the year (summer, winter)! Language teachers have honored themselves in that the subjects they teach are capitalized (English, French), but subjects they disliked in school are lower cases (mathematics, science, economics, history, philosophy and the rest), but just to be sure to confuse everybody they decided that the titles of specific courses should always be capitalized (Calculus 103, Biology I, Advanced Meat Grinding, Theory of North American Board Games).

(2) A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun (Joe hit the ball. He really nailed it.) or another pronoun (She wanted her money.) Common English pronouns include: I, my, mine, me, we, our, ours, us, you, yours, your, he, his, him, she, her, hers, it, its, they, their, theirs, them, which, that, who, whose, whom, this, that, these, those, all, any, both, each, either, neither, few, many, none, some, several, other, another, anybody, everybody, nobody, somebody, no one, someone, everyone, one, whoever, whosoever, anyone. These are little words that tend to cause large problems.

The main writing problem with pronouns is lack of clear reference (Hacker section 12), as in the most common error in North America. (Each student Students should pick up their books.) In grammatical English, a plural adjective ("their") can't modify a singular noun ("student"). The efficiency of the pronoun is lost if the reader does not immediately understand the noun that the pronoun refers to.

Another common pronoun problem is the who/whom issue. Use "who" when referring to the subject of the sentence and "whom" when referring to the object of the sentence (Who killed whom? Whom did Achilles slay?) or object of a prepositional phrase (She ran into whom?)  But, when the word appears in a subordinate clause, it's the use in the clause that controls. (Socrates talked to whoever wanted to know.) In the last example, "whoever" is not considered as the object of the sentence but as the subject in the clause "whoever wanted to know." We will reveal more about clauses later.

Also be sure to notice the pronoun wrinkle that the possessive doesn't always use an apostrophe: his, hers, its, yours and theirs. "It's" is a contraction for "it is." "Who's" is a contraction for "who is." In the indefinite pronouns, however, we use an apostrophe to show the possessive: somebody's, everyone's, no one's.

A fourth common error in pronouns is shifting point of view (Hacker section 5a), the tendency to shift in and out of "you" or "one" or "we" (We all make mistakes, so when one writes you we write we should always have a good eraser handy.) Maintain a consistent point of view toward the reader: one of friendly inclusion (we), or rude separation (you), or else impersonal aloofness (one). Refer to yourself as "we" only if you are King--and as "it" only if you are gollum.

(3) A verb is a word that expresses action (swims, thinks, decides, blasts) or a state of being (is, seems, appears).

The most common damage from verbs comes from shifting verb tenses (Smith writes about the diet of mountain lions; he concluded concludes that they seldom eat children.) and lack of subject-verb agreement (Mathematics are is my tragic downfall. Some mathematics behind this balance sheet is are not correct.) Standard English uses singular verb forms with singular nouns, and plural verb forms with plural nouns, so the trick is to recognize whether the noun counts as one (the subject mathematics) or as more than one (the data compiled using mathematics). On these issues, see Hacker sections 5b and 10. More about verbs later.

(4) An adjective is a word that describes a noun or pronoun (happy days; he's bullish; she's pregnant).

The words "a," "an" and "the" are adjectives known as articles. "The" is a known as a definite article because it often refers to something specific (the book, the page) but sometimes it can also be generic (the noun, the eyeball--meaning the part of part of speech and the body part). "A" and "an" are known as indefinite articles because they refer to something that's nonspecific (a walrus can be any walrus; an oyster can be any oyster). Articles often trip up non-native speakers.

You've listened to too many commercials if you find yourself saying that everything is best (Between Ivory soap and Brand X, Ivory is best better.) Use the comparative form of the adjective when comparing two things (better, worse, faster, slower) and the superlative form only when comparing more than two (best, worst, fastest, slowest).

(5) An adverb is a word that describes a verb (She ran fast), another adverb (She ran really fast), an adjective (The box was too heavy), or a whole sentence (However, we tried to lift it). This adverb category looks like spare parts department among parts of speech. It seems as though all the words that didn't fit into the other, more narrowly defined categories, slid into this one. But adverbs usually answer the questions when, where, how, in what manner or to what extent:

Give me the book now. (tells when)
Put your coat there. (tells where)
Can't you walk gracefully? (tells how)
Let's take this idea further. (tells to what extent)

The common writing error with adverbs and adjectives is mistaking one for the other. (I want you to learn English good. I want you to learn good English well.) Good is an adjective, specifying the kind of English that I want you to learn, but well is an adverb, telling the extent to which I want you to learn. See Hacker section 13.

(6) A preposition is a word that expresses a relationship in time (after, during, before) or space (in, into, to, at, behind, beneath, beside). That said, perhaps the most frequently used preposition in English is one that expresses possession (the bottom of the page). Commonly used prepositions include: above, about, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, during, except, for from, in, inside, into, like, near, off, on, since, to, toward, through, under, until, up, upon, with, within.

(7) A conjunction is a word that connects other words (Jack and Jill), or groups of words (The members of the wedding and the guests of the groom). A special class of conjunctions known as coordinating conjunctions join together words of equal rank; I prefer to call them fanboys: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. They are very important in constructing compound sentences, as we will see in a later mini-lecture. Other conjunctions connect word groups that are not equal; they're important to show subordination of one word group to another, so they're known as subordinate conjunctions: although (although I am very smart, my grades are indifferent), because ( it was scorched and withered away because it had no root), before (before you bathe, take off your shoes) , except (I baked cake for everybody, except you) , if (what shall I say if your father asks where you are?), unless (they sleep soundly unless they have done some mischief), when (Pharaoh hardened his heart when he saw them), and others.

(8) Interjections are exclamations of emotion (wow, Mon Dieu, good grief). They're usually followed by exclamation points (!), and are very seldom or never used in academic writing.

Lest we find all of this too simple, English has the habit of moving specific words from one part of speech to another, so that some words appear in several parts of speech, as in the case of the word "up":

They dragged the sled up the hill. [preposition]
She follows the ups and downs of the market. [noun]
"They have upped the rent again," he complained. [verb]
Kerry ran up the hill. [helping verb in verb phrase]
The up escalator is broken again. [adjective]
Hopkins says to look up at the skies! [adverb]

How many variations are there in the use of the word "down"? How many in use of the word "round"?

For further review of the parts of speech, look at Dr. E's Grammar Sequence for College Writers.


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gutchess@englishare.net                    Academic writing home page                    Gary & Elizabeth Gutchess 2003